When I was growing up, I did a lot of exams: school exams (SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, end of year exams, mock exams) as well as extracurricular exams (violin, piano, ballet, tap, modern…).
By the time it came to my postgraduate exams, I knew how to revise for essay based exams but faced a new horror: Chinese language exams. I was so stressed revising for my final exams, studying endless hanzi that immediately flew out of my memory, and trying to understand grammatical concepts that had only been explained to me in Chinese.
Fast forward nearly a decade and I decided to do another Chinese exam. Partly because we’re moving to China and I wanted to have a piece of paper proving that I knew some Mandarin, partly because having a set date to revise for would force me to study even if I didn’t feel like it. I signed up online for the HSK level 2 exam at my old university.
HSK is an test administered by the Chinese government. It can be taken all around the world and passing different levels allows you to study at Chinese universities or – coming soon – gain points in the new resident permit grading system. Previously there were 11 levels, attainable through three exam papers. The highest level was known to be insanely hard. In 2010 the exam was restructured and now there are six levels, each with their own paper.
I was confident that HSK 2 would be achievable, as all the vocabulary would be revision. I downloaded the Anki app on my phone, then the vocab needed, and started working my way through. Anki is an SRS tool – spaced recognition software – where you see flashcards and test yourself on the vocab. If you know the word, great, you’ll see it again in a little while. If you don’t know then you see it a lot sooner. I ploughed through the 600 flashcards needed.
Along with revising vocab, I started reading a bit more. I have some graded readers from the Chinese Breeze series, and I read one called “I really want to find her”. It’s impressive that it’s possible to tell a story using only 300 characters but it’s also impressively inane.
All this didn’t stop me panicking a week before the exam and worrying that I couldn’t write every character on the test perfectly. I downloaded a couple of mock exams and realised that HSK 2 didn’t need any writing at all; it was multiple choice, yes/no or fill in the blank answers. I scored 45/60 and 50/60 in two mock exams, which put my mind at ease a little.
It was snowing on the morning of the exam, and I wrapped up warm and headed to SOAS. There were a few people standing outside the exam room, and we all ignored each other. Once in the exam room, our cheery invigilator greeted us and asked if we had 2B pencils to fill in the answer sheet. No one had the correct pencil and he went to fetch some spares. The answer sheet looked complicated, you had to block out little squares indicating your response, not just for the answers but for your name and candidate number and so on. I felt myself getting a little stressed but the invigilator was helpful.
And then… it began. The first part of the exam is listening. I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm, but I didn’t understand the very first part of the very first question and immediately felt like quitting. More deep breaths and I got to grips with the rest of it.
Some of the questions are hard because I feel it’s a bit ambiguous – for example, one section has pictures of activities and you have to say whether what you hear matches the picture or not. So if you hear a dialogue about drinking a cup of tea, and there’s a cup and saucer, but it doesn’t look like tea inside, it doesn’t really look like anything at all as the picture is black and white and pixelated…
Once the listening part was over I moved on to the reading section. I’m better at reading than listening (I think, anyway) and it was fairly straightforward but also a few slightly unclear questions.
I finished with 8 minutes to go (the exam is 50 minutes long) and watched the invigilator looking out of the window at the falling snow.
On the way I bought a hot chocolate and downloaded the vocab for HSK 3. Maybe I’m going to get back into doing exams.